What Do Recyclable, Biodegradable & Compostable Really Mean?

April 22, 2016

We know to "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle," and most of us even follow that advice. But with the amount of packaging materials and information out there, the basics of sustainably getting rid of our food-related waste—from the aluminum we use to pack sandwiches for lunch and the yogurt containers from breakfast to the bits and bobs of vegetable trimmings—can get muddled.

Here's a breakdown of some of the most common terms you'll see, what they mean, and how you can reduce your landfill input from the kitchen:

We're *all* about savory yogurt—as long as the containers get rinsed and recycled. Photo by James Ransom


Recycling is the process of converting waste into a reusable material—but this doesn't necessarily mean that recycling one material (like a used milk carton) directly leads to a new supply of the same material (a new milk carton), which is often too expensive. Instead, the product is often reused to create another product entirely.

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It isn't a 100% efficient process, but recycling still makes an enormous large-scale impact. For example, recycling a steel can (what most canned fruits and vegetables come in) saves at least "75% of the energy it would take to create steel from raw materials...enough energy to power 18 million homes," according to Waste Management.

While things like electronics and batteries can't be completely recycled, valuable materials, like copper, gold, lead, and platinum can be salvaged from them. According to Waste Management, nearly 100% of a computer is capable of being recycled—but over 130,000 computers are simply tossed in the United States every day.

What You Can Recycle

Many materials can be recycled, including metals (like aluminum and steel cans), paper and cardboard, glass, plastics, batteries and bulbs, and electronics, but the number indicated within the recycling logo (the chasing-arrow) isn't necessarily an automatic indication of whether they can or not. It simply conveys the type of material used. For a full list of recyclable materials, check the Waste Management website. Most commonly, recyclable materials are often gathered in curbside collection, drop-off centers, and buy-back centers (the machines in grocery stores that pay for bottles).

Keep it Clean

You've likely heard that you should rinse food waste, like milk and scraps, from containers before recycling them and it's no joke. Just one dirty container in a bale of plastic can be enough to contaminate a load of thousands of pounds of plastic, ultimately sending it all to a landfill. This is especially important to keep in mind with materials that cling to food, like aluminum foil—rinse before you toss!


Biodegradable refers to any material that can be decomposed by bacteria and micro-organisms and will, in a relatively short time, return to nature. Historically, this has included things like animal and food waste, but many containers, made from starch, cellulose, and other organic (and some inorganic) biodegradable materials (called bioplastics) are being used to package food.

The benefit is that these products are usually compostable and arguably cut down on landfill waste, but as a 2008 Guardian article reported, there's debate as to how beneficial they actually are for the environment. The article cited the fact that there may not be enough land to grow crops to produce these products, many of which just end up clogging landfills and producing the harmful greenhouse gas methane. In short, it may be too simplistic to say that biodegradable is good and non-biodegradable is bad.


While all compostable material is biodegradable, not all biodegradable material is compostable. The primary difference between the two is that while biodegradable materials return to nature, they can disappear completely and sometimes leave metal residue, but compostable materials create something called humus, or nutrient-rich, water-retaining soil that plants love. (Some gardeners refer to this as "black gold.")

It's important to compost whenever possible so that food waste doesn't just get sent to landfills. Here's a helpful guide to how to compost and another for what you can put in it.

What are some of your favorite ways to cut down on kitchen waste? Tell us in the comments below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Greenstuff
  • Smaug
I eat everything.


Greenstuff April 22, 2016
Smaug has it right. The most important thing is to check the rules for your community, and follow their updates as they expand and improve their programs. Like Smaug, the communities I've lived in recently have not recommended cleaning plastic or glass for recycling, and they've been adamant that any food-soiled paper go in the compost, not the recycling or the trash.
Smaug April 14, 2016
A lot of municipal recycling programs now prefer that you "green can" any sort of food soiled paper, such as pizza boxes and ice cream containers- they also don't seem to worry much about salt. I would suppose that these piles tend to be short on carbonaceous material, which paper supplies. In my experience, recycling programs usually specify which numbers of plastic they accept, but I've read that it's not that important- surely no one goes and reads the tiny numbers on every strawberry container etc., and apparently they separate them (like metals) by melting point. There's also some debate on washing containers; I do (don't like stuff rotting away in the bins), but recyclers I've heard on the subject point out that they'll need to clean the load anyway; here in Drought land (California) the consensus seems to be that you should save the water.